Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Ways of reading without the influence of community

I realised quite a while ago that my web reading habits are very different from most others.

  • My primary source of web reading is my feed reader, still. And unlike how most seem to use feed readers, I mostly follow sites that are sporadically updated. About twenty updates roughly on a daily basis. The remaining 1600 feeds update once a month, or even only a couple of times a year.
  • The theory is that those who post rarely generally only post when they have something really interesting to say, while the rest (like me with my link blog) is posting out of habit.
  • I also tend to follow all of the links in an article or a post. And if those are interesting, I’ll follow the links there as well. On a good day, my entire breakfast reading time is sucked up by following down an interesting thread of links.
  • Following links is essential if you enjoy finding new papers. People never link to PDFs directly in a feed and rarely from social media. But they will link to a PDF in the text of a blog post.
  • Finally, I have a tendency to reread old blog posts because some of them are genuinely great.

Daniel Cook’s Lost Garden is one of the best resources on game design theory and UX design you can find. I enjoy revisiting Christopher Allen’s thoughts on social software and collaboration on his blog Life With Alacrity. Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users is a revolutionary read every time I revisit it. Her book is amazing too but there is just something about a good blog that I genuinely love. A good blog has bite-sized posts mixed in with weightier ones. It carries with it a slice of the time it arrived in: a snapshot of contemporary culture. It reflects the author’s social network through links, quotes, and other references.

Most of those links are dead now, mind you. I know because I also always follow links when I reread an old post.

The good blogs disappear regularly too. I’ll have an urge to dig up an old blog I haven’t read in years only to find it gone. Sometimes entire authors seem to get cleaned off the face of the web. Tim O’Reilly, for example, one of the most influential thinkers and commentators on the web and tech, used to be a prolific blogger but most of those links are now broken, his blog posts scrubbed.

Another important aspect of habitually re-reading old blogs is reevaluation. How do a person’s ideas and arguments age? Dismissing the stuff that was obviously garbage when new (Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, for example) it’s surprising how often your first reaction to a blog post or an idea is coloured by your community. You may think that you are a bastion of independent thinking but if your immediate community generally views Kevin Kelly in a positive light, odds are that your first reaction to his nonsense is that it, well, isn’t nonsense.

For example, his 1000 true fans essay has become web canon and you’ve almost certainly seen people link to it as an accurate observation of how modern media works. Except it gets almost everything about modern web media wrong where the dominant rule is the Matthew Effect: anybody who reaches 1000 fans and doesn’t get absolutely trashed by fandom toxicity, community management, or screwed over by payment providers, will end up with 10 000 fans, and then 100 000 fans. The rich get richer while the rest are stuck at 300 supporters, all of whom are also creators shuffling around the money they get from their 300 supporters.

With web-scale, moderate web media successes will either fade, burn out, or grow to become big successes. Almost all of the money is in the short head of the curve or in being a platform nickle-and-diming the hundreds of thousands who are earning next to nothing in the actual long tail.

On the other hand, if your immediate community still remembers his hyping up of the dot-com bubble or his declaration that the browser was dead in 1997 then odds are that any given link to his work will be framed in qualifiers and scepticism.

And your reading will be harsher for it.

One of the writers whose writing was always framed very harshly by the tech community back in the mid-to-late 2000s (2005-2010) at least, was Nicholas Carr. At the time, it seemed that everybody, from moderate sceptics to zealous tech-boosters, just hated everything he wrote. So, even if you were predisposed to being critical of the state of the web, you read him with scepticism.

However, re-reading him years later, with the benefit of hindsight, and a lot of it begins to look just plain prescient.

When we view the Web in religious terms, when we imbue it with our personal yearning for transcendence, we can no longer see it objectively. By necessity, we have to look at the Internet as a moral force, not as a simple collection of inanimate hardware and software. No decent person wants to worship an amoral conglomeration of technology.

And so all the things that Web 2.0 represents – participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism – become unarguably good things, things to be nurtured and applauded, emblems of progress toward a more enlightened state. But is it really so? Is there a counterargument to be made? Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good? To see Web 2.0 as a moral force is to turn a deaf ear to such questions.

The amorality of Web 2.0, Nicholas Carr (2005)

Once you consider that Web 2.0 is the initial seed for the modern web and modern social media, these observations start to look quite interesting.

Tech has suffered from a hype cycle for the longest time. A proposed innovation gets hyped up to the sky until it either doesn’t pan out or until it becomes too mundane to interest tech’s boosters. Criticism from outside of tech is easily handled. Those people don’t ‘get’ it (whatever the ‘it’ is). They are jealous of the success of the tech industry.

People in tech, software especially, reserve a particular animosity towards criticisms that come from ‘inside the house’, from people who know tech, understand it, have even been a part of implementing it, and aren’t happy about where it has been going. Nicholas Carr had been writing about tech for years in 2004. He was supposed to be ‘one of us’. Then as now, when somebody like Carr dares prick one of tech’s bubbles, the response is almost feral.

All of a sudden, the self-labelled ‘rational, independent thinkers’ start behaving like tantrum-throwing toddlers who grasp at anything and everything as an excuse to perpetuate the tantrum. A single mention of the people responsible for something in tech gets dismissed as an ad hominem attack. Straightforward hypothetical scenarios drawn from experience (and abstracted to protect those involved) get dismissed as straw men.

And men, always men, who regularly boast about their reasoning skills become very, very angry. Especially if the critic is a woman. Not only would she be risking her career but also her very safety as stalking and physical threats are far too common for women who dare draw attention to tech’s dysfunction.

This has been happening for a while. It happened during the dot-com bubble. Naysayers were dismissed out of hand. It happened in 2004 when the foundation of modern tech’s toxic influence on culture, media, politics and society were first laid down with Web 2.0 and people started to notice the damage.

The effect of social media, the consolidation of media, the gig economy, we were warned about it all.

The warnings weren’t even ignored. We don’t have the excuse of ignorance. Anybody who was paying any attention to tech knew about these warnings and actively argued against them.

All of the tech punditry reacted with either outrage or just outright condescending dismissal.

It was pretty easy to fall in with the anger. All of your idols—role models—talked about Carr and his fellow critics either explicitly as adversaries, as charlatans, or as failures trying to blame others for their inadequacies.

But they were right, weren’t they? I mean, once you step back and look at the big picture, you see that they were largely right?

How come people like Kevin Kelly are still venerated as thinkers? Why were Carr and Lanier mocked and dismissed as burnt out charlatans until they actually burned out? Pretty much everything the former group said has been wrong or correct but harmful. Most of the critiques made by the latter hit the proverbial nail on the head. Even the ones they got wrong look reasonable with hindsight.

The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call “the mainstream media.”

The amorality of Web 2.0, Nicholas Carr (2005)

Web 2.0 is the preamble to the current rise of disinformation, extremism, and fascism. Much like the dot-com bubble was the preamble to the financial bubble that popped in 2008.

You can draw a direct line between what tech made in 2004-2008 to the current state of the world.

Yet, we in tech and software development still venerate the tech elite, the billionaires, the VCs even though they have been wrong about everything that actually mattered.

And venerate is the only word that accurately describes this worship. From a 2005 Tim O’Reilly bio:

Satisfaction also comes from O’Reilly’s continuing connection to his other late father, the toilet paper salesman-cum-guru who opened up mental vistas that only recently have reached full fruition in his student - now that the idea of collective consciousness is becoming manifest in the Internet. “The work with George was about the future and the potential of what it is to be human,” O’Reilly says. “But here we are. The Internet today is so much an echo of what we were talking about at [New Age HQ] Esalen in the ‘70s - except we didn’t know it would be technology-mediated.”

Could it be that the Internet - or what O’Reilly calls Web 2.0 - is really the successor to the human potential movement?

The Trend Spotter, Steven Levy (2005)

Salvation was at hand, and the critics threatened that rapture. The tech scene in 2004 onwards behaved much like the reactionary proto-fascists responded when Trump was elected: we were about to be saved, and any form of criticism threatened that salvation.

In both cases, ‘we’ meant ‘people who look like me’.

Even when the observations of these idols of tech were correct, they still utterly failed to consider the actual consequences of what they were observing until it was too late.

What we all failed to see was how much of this new world would be manufactured by users, not corporate interests. Amazon.com customers rushed with surprising speed and intelligence to write the reviews that made the site’s long-tail selection usable. Owners of Adobe, Apple, and most major software products offer help and advice on the developer’s forum Web pages, serving as high-quality customer support for new buyers. And in the greatest leverage of the common user, Google turns traffic and link patterns generated by 2 billion searches a month into the organizing intelligence for a new economy. This bottom-up takeover was not in anyone’s 10-year vision.

No Web phenomenon is more confounding than blogging. Everything media experts knew about audiences – and they knew a lot – confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or if they happened they would not draw an audience, or if they drew an audience they would not matter. What a shock, then, to witness the near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds. There – another new blog! One more person doing what AOL and ABC – and almost everyone else – expected only AOL and ABC to be doing. These user-created channels make no sense economically. Where are the time, energy, and resources coming from?

The audience.

We Are the Web, Kevin Kelly (2005)

He was right about the popularisation of media production and writing. It became something everybody does. He was wrong about blogs, but that was a blind spot common to everybody at the time.

Almost. Nicholas Carr pointed out a few months later how much of the blogging/web media boom seemed to be cheap spam:

Writers are being solicited to churn out such content at dirt cheap rates. Gomes, for instance, signed up on the web to write fifty 500-word articles for $100 (that’s total, not per piece). Most of the writing, apparently, gets done in India and Eastern Europe, and much of it consists of mashing up, and distorting, work plagiarized from other, legitimate sites. Depending on the types of products or ads they’re selling, the site operators instruct the writers to slant the stories to their needs. Medical topics are particular favorites – and particularly subject to fakery and twisting.

When information becomes “information”, Nicholas Carr (2006)

Kevin Kelly and his ilk were wrong about the likely consequences of this process. Whereas Nicholas Carr, writing in response to Kevin Kelly’s vision:

And so, having gone on for so long, I at long last come to my point. The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

The amorality of Web 2.0, Nicholas Carr (2005)

The economics of web media ends up restricting choice. Most of what we read is now produced by amateurs or the financially independent elite. Want to learn about web development? Next to nothing that’s available is written by actual technical writers or experienced educational writers. Want to read about local politics, about what’s happening outside of a major metropolitan area? Good luck finding anything of substance. Instead of a newspaper in every town, we now have five major news outlets per country. If we’re lucky. Five major news outlet per language if we’re unlucky. The rest of what passes as news are just opinion columnists and quick rewrites of wire service news.

Most companies, authors, individuals can’t subsist on free, even with advertising. The web is built on the backs of our free work.

Om Malik, responding to and concurring with Carr’s amorality essay:

I wondered out loud, if this culture of participation was seemingly [helping] build businesses on our collective backs. So if we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!

Web 2.0, Community & the Commerce Conundrum, Om Malik (2005)

I’m convinced this is one of the big reasons behind the current state of web development. Why CSS and platform APIs are so unpopular. Why JS payloads on sites seem to be growing exponentially and growing less and less usable on mobile phones.

When I got my start in web development, you could find several different detailed, well-written, well-structured book on every major part of the stack. You paid for it because the only alternative was trial and error.

Now, web dev education is free web content and increasingly dominated by grifters, even offline. Even when web dev educational writing is being made sincerely and with ambition, it’s still predominantly amateurs, in the sense that it’s done as a sideline by people who aren’t experienced educators.

MDN is great, but it can’t compare with the depth you get with a detailed book on a single subject. How many today hate to use CSS because they learned it from free sources who keep reusing the same explanations and same metaphors they first read in books on CSS 1 and CSS 2? How many prefer React over DOM APIs primarily because Facebook can invest in documentation while MDN, the last bastion of platform documentation, cuts back on staff? Web dev education looks broken at the moment.

There’s even a Nicholas Carr post for that as well (though, language warning, I guess):

Although wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms for the creation of content are often described in purely egalitarian terms – as the products of communities of equals – that’s just a utopian fantasy. In fact, the quality of the product hinges not just, or even primarily, on the number of contributors. It also hinges on the talent of the contributors – or, more accurately, on the talent of every individual contributor. No matter how vast, a community of mediocrities will never be able to produce anything better than mediocre work. Indeed, I would argue that the talent of the contributors is in the end far more important to quality than is the number of contributors. Put 5,000 smart people to work on a wiki, and they’ll come up with something better than a wiki created by a million numbskulls.

Web 2.0’s numbskull factor, Nick Carr (2006)

Carr and others, like Jaron Lanier, raised the alarm about where things were heading over fifteen years ago and their concerns have come true. They may have gotten some of the details wrong, but the overall picture? On the nose. Instead of decentralising, the atomising force that is the web subsequently led to a new, much greater, consolidation:

I was talking about a few different things at the time I wrote “Digital Maoism.” One of them was the way that we were centralizing culture, even though the rhetoric was that we were distributing it. Before Wikipedia, I think it would have been viewed as being this horrible thing to say that there could only be one encyclopedia, and that there would be one dominant entry for a given topic. Instead, there were different encyclopedias. There would be variations not so much in what facts were presented, but in the way they were presented. That voice was a real thing.

And then we moved to this idea that we have a single dominant encyclopedia that was supposed to be the truth for the global AI or something like that. But there’s something deeply pernicious about that. So we’re saying anybody can write for Wikipedia, so it’s, like, purely democratic and it’s this wonderful open thing, and yet the bizarreness is that that open democratic process is on the surface of something that struck me as being Maoist, which is that there’s this one point of view that’s then gonna be the official one.

Jarod Lanier speaking in: ‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong’, Noah Kulwin (2018)

Some, like Jaron Lanier, changed sides once they began to see where things were going.

Which was in the early 2000s. Which was when the rest of the punditry should have seen the harm that was beginning to accumulate.

I don’t blame VCs or startup founders who got rich for conning us about the glorious future of the web. They are grifters—con artists—and when you fall for a scam, it’s on you to pick yourself up and learn from it.

We didn’t. We the developers who are the foot soldiers in the strip-mining that is modern tech keep picking ourselves up after every disaster, bubble pop, burn out, and keep helping the grifters grift.

That’s partly because of intellectuals like Kevin Kelly, who never passed up on an opportunity to evangelise the web and tech, even though they didn’t stand to make millions off it like the hustlers. They kept building the web back up as a saviour after every collapse, every bubble pop, every scandal. Partly it’s on us for constantly venerating billionaires and wannabe billionaires for looting the society the rest of us live in.

It’s time that we stop venerating the hustlers, the looters, the leaders of the tech-rapture cult, and realise, much like with the climate crisis, that things are actually, truly, quite horrible and that it’s on us to fix it before it ruins everything for the coming generations.


I don’t have a clue. I just know that we’re at least fifteen years behind the curve.

Further Nicholas Carr reading

He doesn’t get everything right, but even when he’s wrong, his observations tend to be interesting.

Although the internet certainly enlarges the pool of media offerings, by radically driving down the cost of production and distribution, and thus extends the long tail, that doesn’t mean it will allow the smaller guys (or even the larger ones) to make more money – or any money, for that matter. The problem – assuming you think of it as a problem, which I do – lies, I think, in the basic economic model that is emerging for online media. Which is this: provide free access to the content, and make your money through advertising and, in particular, click-based advertising. With a few important exceptions, the paid-subscription model doesn’t work. By democratizing the production and distribution of media, the internet ensures that an overabundance of supply and the resulting competition will drive the price of most content down to its marginal production cost, which is zero.

Where the money isn’t, Nick Carr (2006)

The winner-takes-all nature of most web media business models means that subscription sites are almost certainly going to consolidate or, as with Patreon, end up being a closed loop of money: most of the subscribers are also publishers, the money gets pushed back and forth, ever-dwindling due to Patreon’s transaction cut.

We’re seeing what looks like the erosion of the American middle class and the rise of a new aristocracy, as a very thin slice of the population reaps an ever larger share of the bounties of Information Age capitalism. Generosity sounds lovely as an economic principle, and I suppose it can be lovely in reality, too – so long as you’re one of the chosen few who can afford to exchange precious gifts.

Generous to a fault, Nick Carr (2006)

Yanis Varoufakis made much the same observation last month: Techno-Feudalism Is Taking Over. Before and after takes on the rise of techno-feudalism.

“Juicing the web” points out, in 2005, that AJAX (the precursor to Single Page Apps) is key to the shift of software tools to the web.

On building tech with poor data sources.

Entrepreneurs are launching all sorts of sites and services that are built on data that they’re siphoning out of third-party sites and databases. Sometimes, the secondhand data is good; sometimes, it’s not. The process of chopping up and bundling data from many different sources can, moreover, amplify inaccuracies. Combine bad data from two different sources and you may get bad data squared. Unfortunately, to the user, the inaccuracies are invisible.

The truthiness of Web 2.0, Nick Carr (2006)

On how the web promotes extremism and polarization:

It’s only natural to think that a revolutionary communications technology like the internet will help break down barriers between people and bring the world closer together. But that’s not the only scenario, or even the most likely one. The internet turns everything, from knowledge-gathering to community-building, into a series of tiny transactions – clicks – that are simple in isolation yet extraordinarily complicated in the aggregate. Research shows that very small biases, when magnified through thousands or millions or billions of choices, can turn into profound schisms. There’s reason to believe, or at least to fear, that this effect, inherent in large networks, may end up turning the internet into a polarizing force rather than a unifying one.

Tribes of the internet , Nick Carr (2005)

On how traditional software will get replaced with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): The slow death of traditional software (2005).

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